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If there was one thing Alberta Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government needed to achieve in this year’s budget, it was to convey a sense of fiscal responsibility – demonstrate that a fundamental shift was under way in its program of deficit spending that was introduced amid a nasty oil recession.

That recession is now over. Alberta, once again, has the hottest economy in the country. But what it will also have, for years to come, are deficits – arrears the provincial government here is anticipating will last until 2023-24. By then, the accumulated government debt will be closing in on a staggering $100-billion – this, 20 years after former premier Ralph Klein pronounced the province free of all financial liabilities.

All budgets, beyond two or three years of forecasting, are best guesses, aspirational goals based on a certain set of assumptions. In fact, much attention will be focused on the debt figure simply because of the historical significance this particular economic metric plays in the history of this province. But in this budget, we’re focusing on something that is little more than cross-your-fingers conjecture.

Read more: Alberta budget: Province projects $8.8-billion deficit; looks to pipelines, carbon tax to balance books

Explainer: Alberta budget highlights: Five things you need to know

The government is predicting a return to balance in five years. By then, Ministry of Finance officials expect total debt to hit $96-billion. But that path to balance is filled with potential potholes. For one, it anticipates that Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion goes ahead, and oil begins flowing through it by 2021. Besides the fact that it may never get built, the project is also way behind schedule. The projections also depend on revenue from the federal government’s national carbon tax – a plan that is under attack and in danger of falling apart. And finally, it’s reliant on oil prices continuing to rise over the course of the next five years – a bet many will consider dangerous.

In other words, Alberta’s debt could reach more than $100-billion. Easily.

There are other statements in this budget that will cause eyes to roll. For instance, it anticipates that the government will keep spending below population growth plus inflation – or roughly 3 per cent annually. That doesn’t sound like a lot unless you’re talking about a province drowning in debt. It wouldn’t take much to cut government spending to 1.5 per cent, for instance, which would go a long way to eating away at the deficit. But here’s a bigger problem: Ms. Notley’s government has failed to hit the spending targets it set out in its two previous budgets, blowing through them by varying degrees. Why should anyone have faith her government is going to firmly hit those targets now?

Ultimately, this budget, like every budget before it, regardless of the particular government’s ideological bent, is about choices. And the critical decision that all of Alberta’s modern political leaders continue to make is this: They will not tax their citizens to solve their revenue problems the way other provinces do.

In other words, if Alberta is $100-billion in debt five years from now, it only has itself to blame.

Consider this: At the height of oil prices, the province was bringing in roughly $9-billion a year in royalties for non-renewable resources. It was money used to live the high life, giving public servants and others salaries that were the envy of the country. Those resource royalties are expected to be just under $4-billion this year, climbing to a high of $5-billion in a couple of years time. So that is a $4-billion hole from the good old days. The province could easily fill that hole with a 4-per-cent sales tax – which would be up from the zero per cent people pay now. Today, Alberta has an $11.2-billion annual tax edge over the next closest province – B.C. That is a staggering number. When United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney talks about restoring the “Alberta Advantage,” you have to wonder what he’s thinking.

How much more of an advantage does he want?

There is a very good chance, as things stand now, that Mr. Kenney will be running Alberta in little more than a year’s time. He will certainly come out swinging against this budget, calling the level of debt an outrage and an embarrassment. What he won’t talk about is the fact that there’s no way of rectifying the problem unless the government introduces cuts to programs and services on a scale never seen before, or brings in a sales tax.

Someone needs to start an adult conversation in Alberta and soon. The question is who?

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